Ahh, now we get it. Sven has become so Anglicised, so steeped in English sporting tradition that he's modelled his world cup challenge on the nation's highly successful rugby team. The idea is to dominate the opposition physically, then get the ball into kicking range where football's answer to Jonny Wilkinson pumps it long and high for the vital score. Accumulate enough of these and no amount of fancy artistry will defeat you! And there was us worrying that, with 10 days to go and after five years to work it all out, Sven was still so uncertain of what he was up to that he was trying completely new formations with key players out of position and sending out 17 year olds he hasn't seen play.
It was heartening to see England despatch Hungary last night, but it wasn't the most convincing display, especially in the first half. Crouch played well as he did last Thursday in Reading, but he's unlikely to start. Instead it seems England will persevere with their only scoring striker in the qualifiers who has been out for almost the whole of this year while his inspirational strike partner probably won't make the tournament at all and several other key players are struggling for fitness after long injuries or exhausting seasons. The defence is much praised but concedes uncomfortably often away from home. If it wasn’t for stellar quality in midfield England probably wouldn’t have made it this far.
It’s lucky, then, that an unspectacular Group B offers the chance to make up a plan while still scrambling into the second round, not unlike Italia ‘90. It would also help if it was cold and wet. England’s best performances in 2002 were against Argentina (indoors) and Denmark (chucking it down in rain) whereas they usually struggle in full summer heat (goalless against Nigeria, out against Brazil).
The main rivals in the group are Sweden who on qualifying form are a superior side, but like England face doubts about key players. Their self-assembly, ice-tracked wheels have begun to come off since reaching the finals. Without the highly influential Freddie Ljungberg, who’s been playing for Arsenal through a painful ankle swelling, Sweden were trounced 3-0 by the Republic of Ireland in March, conceding more in one friendly than in five away qualifiers, and were booed off by their own fans last week following a goalless encounter with Finland. It’s also worth noting that Sweden are still experimenting with various midfielders at right back and defensive lynchpin Olaf Mellberg is struggling for confidence in the centre. By the time England face them in the final group game both sides might be happy with their traditional draw.
The real hazard for England comes in their opener against Paraguay. A dangerous but inconsistent side, they held Brazil and Argentina to 0-0 draws, but also conceded four or more in a third of their away games. Their strength and weakness is set-pieces. They have plenty of options at attacking dead-ball situations, but struggle to contain big men in their own box so it would be handy for the opposition to start, say, a six foot seven inch forward.
Or indeed a centre-half of the same height, like Dennis Lawrence of Trinidad & Tobago. T&T love to counter attack and do it very quickly. They create chances and can take them, but tend to pour forward and give the ball away too easily. Crucially they came away with no points or goals whatsoever from visits to fellow finalists Mexico, the United States and Costa Rica. The international against Iceland at Loftus Road earlier this year suggested that Avery John at left back was very vulnerable. Their support is fantastic, but their first visit to the grand stage is likely to be a short one.
Team Ratings – A (best) to G (worst)
Defence – England E, Sweden C, Paraguay F, Trinidad & Tobago F
Attack – England D, Sweden C, Paraguay C, Trinidad & Tobago F
Crucial game - England v Paraguay, Sat 10th June, 2pm - Frankfurt
Fantasy Football Recommendations
When you really must choose an England player stick with the midfield. Until last night Chelsea’s Frank Lampard looked a great choice. He scored a goal every two games in qualifying and had the penalty job. Suddenly Steven Gerrard is playing up front, Lampard's not getting forward so much and then he misses a penalty. Watch what happens on Saturday against Jamaica and then decide between them. Chelsea's John Terry finally scored for his country at the 23rd time of asking. No current England defender has more than one international goal to his name and, with the tendency for England to go to sleep at the back and concede a goal or two, we'd suggest looking elsewhere for better value.
Until recently we’d have suggested picking Swedish defenders like Erik Edman of Tottenham, but while they sort themselves out it may be better to focus on their obvious attacking stars. Henrik Larsson is in great form, but prolific Juventus striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic is struggling and Freddie Ljungberg is likely to be resting between each match just to try to get through the tournament.
If you want to capitalise on Paraguay’s dead-ball prowess go for midfielder Carlos Paredes or centre back Carlos Gamarra, though Gamarra may lose you points at the back. Right winger Edgar Barreto is the main free-kick taker.
Trinidad & Tobago offer a couple of bargain gambles. Dwight Yorke is creating from midfield these days rather than finishing chances, but he also takes the penalties. Centre back Dennis Lawrence is a big threat from set-pieces while Stern John has thrived on the crosses T&T like to whip over to the extent of being in the top 10 international scorers of all time.
Picture of England desperately trying to rebuild in time for the finals via ukslim's Flickr stream.